Gunsmoke

At one time the Hollywood studios all seemed to have a particular style and feel associated with them. Even without seeing the credits you could usually tell which company had produced a movie just by its look. Mention Universal to most film fans and they will probably think automatically of the horror cycle running from the early 30s through to the mid-40s. Understandable as that is, it also means that the westerns the studio made in the 50s tend to be overlooked, although not by genre fans. The Universal western (or Universal-International to be more accurate) was for the most part a no-nonsense affair that moved at a fast lick and was visually attractive. Gunsmoke (1953) is a good example of the studio’s output – pacy, entertaining and lacking in pretension.

Reb Kittredge (Audie Murphy) has been making a living as a hired gunman, and the opening shots of the film see him and his friend Johnny Lake (Charles Drake) riding hard in an effort to outrun a posse of cavalrymen on their trail. The two men had been plying their trade in the Johnson County War but are now heading off in different directions – Johnny planning to sell his skills elsewhere, while Reb hopes to get  into the ranching business. He’s had an offer of employment from a man called Telford (Donald Randolph), and is setting off to find out what it entails when he’s bushwhacked – a lone sniper shoots his horse from under him using a buffalo gun. As is often the case in these movies, a man’s reputation has the nasty habit of preceding him and then dogging his steps thereafter. Reb has made his name dispensing lead and that’s really the only thing that interests people. It turns out Telford is a slick and ruthless business type who has been buying up all the land around, and now there’s only one man standing in his way. Dan Saxon (Paul Kelly) and his daughter Rita (Susan Cabot) are all that stand between Telford and total control. And this is where Reb comes in – Telford wants to hire him to ensure (by whatever means are necessary) Saxon doesn’t get his cattle to market before his mortgage comes due. So far this is all pretty standard fare, but the initial reluctance of Reb to take on the job and, more significantly, the fact he wins the ranch from Saxon on the turn of a card takes the story in a different direction. Reb has the ranch he always wanted but with Saxon now working for him, the daughter resenting him, Telford on his back, a deadline looming and a former friend gunning for him.

No 50s western would be truly complete if it failed to touch on the notion of redemption, at least in passing. I don’t for a moment believe Gunsmoke was ever striving for great depth yet it does touch on this classic theme. Murphy’s character is referred to as having gained notoriety for his actions in the Johnson County War – while it’s not made clear which side he hired out to the implication is surely that he earned his pay gunning for the big ranchers. By siding with Saxon, the small independent, and taking on the might of Telford and all his resources it could be read as an attempt to make up for his past deeds. Anyway, the pace is so brisk and the script so packed with incident that there’s not that much time to linger over such matters. The screenplay comes courtesy of D D Beauchamp and a novel by Norman A Fox, neither of whom were strangers to the western genre. The direction was handled by Nathan Juran, one of those studio professionals who rarely get a lot of credit for the quality of their work. Juran made a number of westerns with Murphy alongside other studio assignments. As time wore on he moved towards science fiction and fantasy pictures – 20 Million Miles to Earth, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jack the Giant Killer, and so on – which paved the way for a television career notable for his contribution to various Irwin Allen shows. Juran may not have been an especially spectacular director but he was very solid and I’ve always found his work highly watchable.

Gunsmoke saw Audie Murphy settling more comfortably into his role as a movie star, and particularly as a western star. He would go on to better and more complex parts in the future of course but this film offered him an opportunity to play a guy with some interesting shadings to his character. He’s probably at his best in his exchanges with Charles Drake, who makes for a fine anti-heroic/villainous adversary. Susan Cabot is good too and shows plenty of grit throughout – her driving of a chuck wagon down a treacherous mountain incline is a memorable scene – proving herself capable of providing more than mere eye candy. Still, the acting honors have to go to the supporting cast, particularly Paul Kelly and Donald Randolph. Randolph is oily and effete yet menacing as a coiled serpent, the silky exterior masking a calculating and venomous nature. And Kelly is just about perfect as the rancher who will gamble on anything. His philosophical approach to life and all its tribulations adds a lot of charm to the movie.

Gunsmoke is out on DVD in Spain (it’s also available in Germany as part of a Murphy box set from Koch Media) via Llamentol. The image is pretty good, if perhaps a little soft, and doesn’t have any serious damage visible. Generally, the presentation improves as the feature progresses. I’ve seen the film on TV a number of times and the DVD is comparable to those broadcast versions as far as I can tell. Gunsmoke may not be the best western Audie Murphy made and it’s not the best Universal-International had to offer either. Having said that, I like it a lot – it’s brisk, colorful and entertaining from start to finish. There’s good professional work done by everyone – both in front of and behind the cameras – and the film stands as a fair representation of the style and ethos of a Universal-International western.

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48 thoughts on “Gunsmoke

  1. Haven’t seen this for a long time. I remember it to be quite entertaining and will find time to watch it again. I too find those films by Nathan Juran very watchable. Best regards.

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  2. Always a treat to see you review an Audie Murphy western, Colin – especially so in this case as I’ve never seen or even heard of it before. I take Audie Murphy’s presence in a movie as a stamp of certainty that I’m going to enjoy it…he hasn’t let me down yet.

    It’s only in recent years that I’ve made the connection between Universal-International and all those quality westerns and action/adventure pictures from the 50s. The studio seems to be at some kind of peak in that decade, churning out slickly-made, solid, unpretentious and entertaining movies, one right after the other.

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  3. Don’t think I’ve seen this one (easy to get confused with a title like that of course) – when it comes to Juran’s work, it is his fantasy stuff I am more familiar with, no question. I love Paul kelly, another unsung character actor

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  4. Fine, perceptive post. I like Audie Murphy, have several of his films on dvds, think he gives fine performances in No Name on the Bullitt (my favorite of his), The Quiet American, and The Unforgiven. Gotta check out Gunsmoke.

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    • Yes, those are all good Murphy vehicles. I remember The Quiet American came up in discussion here a long time back and I mentioned that I’d like to feature it at some point – still haven’t gotten round to it but I rate it highly and feel Murphy gives an excellent account of himself opposite Redgrave.

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  5. Thanks for a great review of this little gem, Colin. I like pretty well all of Murphy’s U-I output and “GUNSMOKE” was, for me, where it really took off. Murphy was now starting to show a confidence that gave his performances colour. The films that followed are all favourites with me, to a lesser or greater degree.

    Juran did not exactly have a long CV but I really like the Murphys he direceted, as well as “LAW AND ORDER” and the later “GOOD DAY FOR A HANGING”.

    It’s been a while since I watched this one – you have reminded me it’s time I did just that!

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    • I’ve always thought it would be interesting to watch Murphy’s films in order of release to see where he really comes into his own. His acting lessons pretty much took place in front of the camera.

      My guess would be that he “got good” about 1953 or 54, building to the really great work he did in stuff like Night Passage (1957) and No Name On The Bullet (1959).

      I used to think it was that writers got better at writing for him, but that’s not giving him the credit he deserves.

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      • Yes, I’d like to try watching his stuff chronologically. Still, I reckon this film is there or thereabouts when it comes to Murphy getting more comfortable in his role as an actor – as for the writing, it may have brought out his strengths as time passed but he was developing as a performer all the time regardless.

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  6. Yes, it’s another good U-I Western, just as you say–they don’t all have to be the greatest. Just reading what you wrote made me feel I could watch it again right now. Murphy and Charles Drake are in a number of movies together over a period of about ten years, of which I believe this was the first one. They were always good together. Murphy also had chemistry with beautiful Susan Cabot. As everyone agrees, Paul Kelly was always great. In addition to its aesthetic charms, this does have the redemption theme. It doesn’t need to hit it too hard for it to be there.

    I like all three of Juran’s Murphy Westerns (of course, it’s hard for me to ever dislike Audie Murphy). They’re all kind of within a range though I like DRUMS ACROSS THE RIVER best. Juran’s background as an art director probably helps all his movies, but I really think he liked that fantasy genre best (I saw him in person once and he talked about how he enjoyed it, and especially how he liked working with Ray Harryhausen). THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD is a true classic of that genre. I’ve never ceased to enjoy it since first viewing in 1958–and it has a great score by no less than Bernard Herrmann too. I might point out that, pre-Harryhausen, Juran started with those Arabian Nights things at U-I with very appealing THE GOLDEN BLADE, which I’d recommend to those who enjoy this kind of movie because it’s one of the best ones–has all the flair of both the Westerns he was making then and his later, better-known fantasy films too.

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    • Good call on Drums Across the River, Blake. It probably is the best of the Juran/Murphy collaborations.

      I’m quite envious that you had the opportunity to meet Juran and got to talk to him about the Sinbad movie and all the great people involved in its production.

      Of all Juran’s work, I’m least familiar with those Arabian adventures. I may have seen some when I was a kid but I honestly can’t recall. I have The Golden Blade as part of a Rock Hudson box set and plan to give it a spin soon.

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  7. Great to see you include a not too well known Universal Fifties Western Colin, and also good
    to see you speak up for the generally unheralded Nathan Juran.
    As Blake mentions,I too think DRUMS ACROSS THE RIVER is the best of Juran’s Westerns and
    it’s also one of Murphy’s best too.
    An ironic twist is that Juran’s final feature THE BOY WHO CRIED WEREWOLF was also produced
    by GUNSMOKE’s Aaron Rosenberg.While it’s a fun programmer it’s a far cry from the great A
    features Rosenberg produced for Universal in the Fifties.
    Jerry mentioned LAW AND ORDER which I also really like but feel the film would have been far
    better with a more appealing leading man.My general dislike for Ronald Reagan as a Western
    leading man has nothing at all to do with politics BTW!
    I just feel the film would have been far better with say, Joel McCrea or Rory Calhoun in the lead,
    but that’s just me.
    I may be wrong but to my reckoning SHOWDOWN is the only Audie Murphy Western not available
    on DVD somewhere on the Planet. That’s a pity because it’s a tough little Western and the only
    one of Audie’s many Universal Westerns to be filmed in black & white.
    I do hope that perhaps Koch in Germany or the Universal Vault MOD series can rectify this
    sooner rather than later.
    It’s good that the Universal Vault series now seems to be back in business as many of us thought
    they had given up the ghost. Their output over the last couple of months has been quiet
    prolific and hopefully they will consider more of their Fifties Westerns in their future output.
    Having said that I am sure Colin, most of the titles that both you and I want have already
    been issued in Europe.
    As I have said many time before both here and elsewhere I do hope the three “missing” Joel
    McCrea Universal Westerns surface at some point:SADDLE TRAMP,THE LONE HAND
    and BLACK HORSE CANYON…the latter in 1.85 widescreen would be sensational!
    I also crave a 2.0 widescreen release of the very entertaining RAILS INTO LARAMIE.
    That film has a bad guy “dream team” of Dan Duryea,Lee Van Cleef and Myron Healey!
    Apart from the aforementiomned SHOWDOWN I would also like to see R.G.Springsteen’s
    stark black & white Western HE RIDES TALL make it to DVD at some point.
    The strong adult subject matter gave the film an X certificate in England.
    Finally (for now!) Colin,I would like to say what a nice surprise it was to see you draw attention
    to yet another Universal Western especially following so closely on the heels of your fine piece
    on JOE DAKOTA.

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    • John, it’s always a pleasure to view and draw attention to UI stuff from the 50s, westerns or otherwise. I agree it would be nice to have that missing Murphy title but I’m sure it will appear somewhere sooner or later.
      Seeing as you mentioned Koch releases, I see Amazon.de have some of their western Blu-rays on offer at the moment for 7.97 Euro – a real steal.

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  8. Further to my previous comments I am also glad that you made mention of Nathan Juran’s
    fantasy films.20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH and THE DEADLY MANTIS are favorites of mine.
    I consider THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD the very best of the Sinbad titles.
    ATTACK OF THE FIFTY FOOT WOMAN has become a “cult” classic and is remembered for
    it’s very NON-special effects. That’s part of it’s cheesy appeal.
    Mr Juran saw fit to call himself Nathan Hertz on this title,but effects nonewithstanding,visually
    the film is very good at times,and Juran showed himself to be an expert of making something
    out of nothing.At any rate the film has endured though possibly for all the wrong reasons.
    Another director who I feel has a similar output to Juran is Fred F Sears.
    Both made Westerns and Fantasy/Sci-Fi films and both worked for producer Charles Schneer.
    I much prefer Sears fantasy films to his Westerns and THE WEREWOLF is visually a very
    striking and aptmospheric picture. Sears also made a film with awful special effects…THE
    GIANT CLAW with a dreadful “puppet” type monster. Again the non effects footage is very
    good and the film has endured for possibly all the wrong reasons.
    It’s such a shame Ray Harryhauisen never worked on this film as his “giant birds” from
    SINBAD and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND are superb. Yet another example of Sam Katzman’s
    cost cutting antics.
    Sears,had he lived,I am sure would have gone on to higher budgets,possibly for Schneer.
    Sadly his passing from a heart attack at the tender age of 44 cut short a most promising
    career.
    There is an outfit in Germany called Anolis Entertainment that has been releasing
    lovely Blu-Ray editions of Fifties Universal Monster/Sci-Fi/Fantasy movies.
    I am a total sucker for these Universal Fantasy films and I do hope that Anolis release
    THE DEADLY MANTIS on Blu-Ray at some point. The p.q on these Anolis Blu-Rays is
    sensational,though I must admit they are not cheap.
    Anyway,thanks again Colin,for bringing these great Universal Fifties movies to everyone’s
    attention and I do hope there is more to follow in the future.
    To mention Koch finally I do wish that they would release some of Universal’s Fifties
    Noirs/Crime Thrillers like NAKED ALIBI and THE TATTERED DRESS.
    There are also rare Programmer thrillers that I mentioned recently over at Toby’s
    like OUTSIDE THE LAW (directed by Jack Arnold) and APPOINTMENT WITH A SHADOW
    (directed by Ricard Carlson). Other titles in a similar vein that I would love to see surface
    are THE NIGHT RUNNER,STEP DOWN TO TERROR,MAN AFRAID and IV’E LIVED BEFORE
    among others. I hope if and when some of these titles do turn up,they might be worthy of
    the “Colin Treatment” 🙂

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    • Yeah, I’d like to see more of Sears’ work – he seemed to have a very busy if short career.

      Anolis released a lot of Hammer stuff on DVD in the past and fans seemed pleased with the quality of the discs. They appear to be a good professional outfit.

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  9. It would be good to think that the “shakers” over at Universal also read these blogs and take the suggestions on board! I’m not fit to comment on the “monster” movies, as they are not my thing, but I would concur with John that all those “noir” titles mentioned should be available.

    As for the three McCrea westerns mentioned, these are terrific, especially “BLACK HORSE CANYON”. A widescreen print is essential to show the great wild horse action on hand. Plus, it is always such a joy to see what a great horseman Mccrea was.

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    • It may be the smaller boutique labels licensing films from the likes of Universal et al offer more hope. It never hurts to contact them and let them know what titles fans are interested in.

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  10. I have not seen Gunsmoke, but I have enjoyed pretty much all of Audie Murphy’s westerns, aside from The Kid from Texas, that was just painful. Will have to give this one a try.

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    • Andrew, I have yet to see The Kid from Texas actually – I will have to try it sometime and see if there’s anything of merit in it. Anyway, if you’re generally a fan of Murphy’s work then I’m sure you’ll enjoy Gunsmoke.

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  11. Colin, as we (?!) have name-dropped Hammer Films and Anolis Entertainment I thought I would go off-topic and mention that the Anolis Blu-ray of CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF is sensational, just about the most stunning transfer that I have seen of a vintage Hammer film, lots of great extras too.
    The film has always been a long favorite of mine but nothing in the film tops the chilling and darkly comic opening where Richard Wordsworth’s hapless beggar encounters Anthony Dawson’s sadistic and creepy Marques. Both actors play it to the hilt and milk all the black humor in the scene, as well as giving us a
    sense of unease about what is to follow.
    Richard Wordsworth was the great grandson of the Great Poet and after his passing his lovely lakeland cottage was purchased by none other than Sting. I’m not that far off-topic as “Werewolf” was a Universal release. Like I said before, Anolis Blu-rays are not cheap but you certainly get what you pay for.
    While we are talking all things Hammer the recent Shock Media Blu-ray of HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES is another beauty of a transfer. It’s very sad that English fans have to go to Germany and Australia to get these classic films from a very British institution. I am not a Hammer completist BTW but certain of their films are total essentials as far as I am concerned. I live in hope for a Blu-ray of PIRATES OF BLOOD RIVER another firm favorite.

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    • John, I like Hammer movies a lot, although I wouldn’t class myself as a completist either. I really enjoy Curse of the Werewolf too, and appreciate those opening scenes every bit as much as yourself. It’s good to hear the German Blu-ray is up to scratch.
      The Hound of the Baskervilles is a sumptuous looking movie and I fully intend to get that Australian disc sooner or later – it’s a film that deserves to be seen in the best form possible.

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  12. Colin,
    On the subject of DVD/Blu-ray news did you know that RED SUNDOWN has just appeared on Blu-ray from Llamentol in Spain. I think this was only available in this format as part of a Koch three film set. Also from Llamentol a DVD of FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER.
    Also were you aware that BANDIDO was recently released on DVD in Italy in what I understand to be a pretty decent widescreen transfer.

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    • I do know about Bandido but the news on the others is just that, news.
      The only thing I’m unsure about though is the fact Llamentol have a habit of releasing Blu-rays as BD-R (recordable media), something I’m not a fan of.

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  13. Thanks Colin,
    I had no idea that the Llamentol Blu-rays were BD/R, could these be taken directly from the Koch releases?
    There is a real oddity in their latest batch, THE GLASS SPHNIX one of Robert Taylor’s last films. It has an Indiana Jones sounding plot of searching for the titled Sphnix containing an elixir of immortality. I’ve always wanted to see this film although it’s reputedly dreadful. I won’t be buying it because according to Llamentol’s site it’s in Spanish and Italian only.
    BTW I thought THE KID FROM TEXAS was pretty good, not Murphy’s best but a far cry from his worst. I think you will enjoy FOUR GUNS TO THE BORDER if you don’t already have it, the Sidonis release was a really nice transfer.

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    • I would also recommend those two westerns. Considering it was Audie’s first U.I. western, I think it was pretty fair. And “FOUR GUNS…” is by my reckoning one of Calhoun’s absolute best!

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  14. Nice work, Colin. Saw this one about a year or so back and liked it. Review at the usual place. Former art director, turned helmsman, Nathan Juran had a eye for these types of films.

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    • Glad you liked it too, Gord. As you note when you commented on it over at IMDb it is a brisk little movie which doesn’t hang around and so never becomes unwelcome, and Juran was very skilled at getting optimum results from such low to mid-range efforts. And that’s no mean feat – lesser filmmakers end up producing pedestrian movies but Juran’s stuff is very watchable.

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  15. Been watching episodes of Murphy’s 1961 series, WHISPERING SMITH. Have reviews for 13 of the episodes up. Not a great series by any stretch, but should hit the mark for fans. Caught them all on You-Tube.

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    • I have the DVD set from a few years back and have some but not all of it. It’s OK, there are better TV westerns out there but Murphy’s presence does help and gives it a boost.

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